from the Director's Desk

Musings about school library media and instructional technology programs from NCDPI's Instructional Technology Divison.  Subscribe to our RSS Feed.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

David Warlick and I presented a session at NCaect in RTP today on the educational and policy ramifications of the new social networking tools. The discussion was challenging and, I think, productive. We in Instructional Technology are posting a white paper to help all of us think through the issues of managing these powerful resources within our schools and school systems. As many in the session today reiterated, this is a delicate dance, one that needs a variety of controls based on the curriculum, educational need, network capacity, and ethical/safety issues. I'm posting this white paper here so that we all have the opportunity to continue the discussion that was begun this morning. I hope you will all help us make this a useful document as we move towards a more participatory, collaborative educational culture.

Harnessing (and Managing) the Power of Collaboration

Blogs, wikis, e-mail, chat, IM, podcasts, Flickr, YouTube, and RSS feeds—all Web 2.0 tools with collaborative potential. Why are these resources suddenly such exciting educational opportunities? How can we continue to manage a safe environment for our students, while providing these critical experiences in our schools?

The Opportunities Social Networks Provide

The MacArthur Foundation calls it the participatory culture and defines it as one

“with relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement, strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations, and some type of information mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices. A participatory culture is also one in which members believe their contributions matter, and feel some degree of social connection with one another (at least they care what other people think about what they have created).”

“Access to this participatory culture functions as a new form of the hidden curriculum, shaping which youth will succeed and which will be left behind as they enter school and the workplace.” (Jenkins et al, 2006:3)

In essence, literacy skills for the 21st Century are social skills—participatory skills—that are equally as important as traditional literacy skills such as reading, writing, and computation.

It is this opportunity to be in charge of one’s own learning, become a part of a larger community of learners, share expertise and learn from others more experienced and knowledgeable, and create products, experiences, and opportunities that explains the educational benefits of social networking. It is the chance to offer the ability to cultivate and safely practice the “skills, knowledge, ethical frameworks and self confidence” (Jenkins et al, 2006: 8) necessary for the 21st Century workplace. They provide students the opportunity to be guided and facilitated by a knowledgeable classroom teacher who understands and appreciates the potential of Web 2.0, but who also is cognizant and on guard for the dangers inherent in such an open, collaborative environment.

In-school and after-school programs offer all students a level playing field in which to participate in this collaborative environment regardless of their home access and connectivity or their parents’ income or ability to support these educational experiences. Schools have an obligation to provide these opportunities to all students or run the risk of creating a society in which a few succeed at the expense of many and other nations, because of their sheer numbers, outperform our elite.

Managing Web 2.0 in Schools

As lofty as these goals of providing social networking opportunities for all students in a school-based setting are, the responsibilities are daunting. For every story of an exciting student educational experience, there exists at least one equally horrifying. How do we navigate this tenuous environment?

Start with the Teachers

Make sure teachers understand the social networking landscape. Create professional development opportunities that introduce them to blogging, wikis, and other innovations as they appear. Give them opportunities to practice their skills, and make sure they have good examples of classroom practice and resources that enable creative, productive, and educationally sound social networking. These tools can be an avenue of professional development in their own right. Not only do they offer examples of 21st Century classroom practice, they encourage teachers to grow in their own skill set via curriculum- or pedagogy-based blogs, wikis, podcasts, and the like.

Educate teachers about their public persona. Web 2.0 opens wide the door of private correspondence and gives it a public face. Private blogs become fodder for news outlets if controversy erupts. Above all, teachers need to understand that nothing is private in a Web 2.0 environment! If they understand and appreciate that fact, so will their students.

Examine Your AUP

Can your Acceptable Use Policy handle social networking situations? Apply a reality check: can you link back to a district policy to manage online behavior (i.e cyberbullying to bullying) or do you need to create new ones (i.e. posting images on sites such as Flickr and YouTube)? Can you cover yourself with the caveat that all equipment/resources used within the school are for educational purposes only, or is that too limiting in this participatory environment? Should you have teachers as well as students sign it? Should parents be asked to sign the child’s AUP, or should Internet access be treated the same as textbook access, without signed permissions but with specific consequences for misuse?

Reconsider the Traditional “Nos”

Traditionally Acceptable Use Policies have banned gaming, chats, and even personal e-mail. In this more connected environment, these banned behaviors may be not only acceptable but important. “Chat” is now a component of most online courses, and educational games are beginning to take hold as a way to teach real-world problem-solving. E-mail will always be problematic, but its importance as a mode of communication between teachers and parents, students and teachers, and students with other students cannot be overlooked. Rather than avoiding e-mail altogether, consider manageable solutions such as student-specific e-mail programs for school use.

Accept the inevitability that 21st Century AUPs are works in progress. They will have to be re-examined, and possibly rewritten, more frequently than in the past. Remain open to new technologies as they relate to education, and constantly evaluate school and LEA policies and procedures to include them where appropriate.

Educate Your Parents

Consider parents your first line of support and defense. Constantly inform them of the exciting Web 2.0 experiences your school and district are providing. Work diligently to get their buy-in as you open up your system to the opportunities for students to experience social networking opportunities.

Above all, teach parents strategies for keeping their children safe on the Internet. Provide resources and training in how to monitor their children’s Internet use—and offer strategies for talking with their children about the opportunities and challenges of staying safe in an interconnected world. Inform parents that they should continually monitor their children’s Web postings and that they should report threatening comments, sexual predation, or cyberbullying to both the school and local law enforcement. Also remember that reaching out to parents offers a subtle opportunity to review or update them on copyright and fair use.

Filter Flexibly While Teaching

Invest in filters that allow easy blocking and unblocking of sites—and consider enabling that process at the school or even teacher level. Filter flexibility must go hand-in-hand with the education process, however. Consider this teaching opportunity to be character education as well as technology education. Start in kindergarten by teaching students such basics as using the back button (and informing the teacher if they come upon an inappropriate site). Emphasize the Societal and Ethical Behavior Competency Goal of the Computer Skills Curriculum throughout each student’s PreK-13 career. View inadvertent access to inappropriate Web sites as teachable moments akin to teaching children to cross the street rather than locking them in the house. Consider graduated access from primary to elementary to middle school to high school, emphasizing that this privilege is accompanied with increased responsibility for individual behavior as well as life-long learning.


Four levels of challenges exist for successful use of Web 2.0 tools:

1. Technical: The network must be flexible enough to allow students to use collaborative online tools and yet provide a safety net to block harmful content from reaching students or the network.

2. Teaching and learning: To be effective, Web 2.0 tools must be used to accomplish instructional goals. This provides an opportunity for technology facilitators and media coordinators to support instruction through collaborative planning as well as professional development on Web 2.0 tools and teaching.

3. Students: Use of Web 2.0 tools provides students the opportunity to construct meaning from assignments and share that meaning with others rather than simply submitting a paper or project to the teacher.

4. Parents: Web 2.0 provides opportunities for schools to partner with parents in new ways. Parents should be offered training on how students can be safe online, what to do if they discover inappropriate content, and how Web 2.0 can be used productively.

As the world becomes more participatory, education must become more participatory as well. We cannot allow our fears to overcome our reason and our nation’s ability to remain competitive. The educational potential of Web 2.0 is too important to ignore. We must learn to take advantage of it—and manage it.